Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Reviving those steam train dreams
Steam trains; they run through our imaginations don't they? At least if you are from a certain generation when the generation before grew up with them. Our imaginations run with the Flying Scotsman, with the Mallard as it runs fast and linear over viaducts and the emptiness of the border hills; past hale people in windy villages who marvel at its prowess and wave their hats as it rushes by.
When we were kids we had train sets and we formed a lifelong bond with the claret of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway and the green of the Great Western, God's Wonderful Railway and the streams of vapour the locomotives left in the gentle hills of Devon.
Nothing bad ever happened when stream trains were around, except the displeasure of the Fat Controller. Nobody ever fought or threw up on a train and the world was full of infinite possibilities. You just has to ride the mainline to take them. Looking back the world of railways probably seemed that way because nothing bad happened in our childhoods and the sun always seemed to shine. And the cliche back in those days that every small boy wanted to be an engine driver held true.
Sure there were snakes in our Eden. When Yvonne's husband took us up to his attic to see his giant train set, we gloried in the locomotive rushing through the tunnels and the neat little station houses (never trust someone who spends so much time making small buildings from match sticks). There was something too intense in his gaze, a desperate and maniac glint that we picked up on in the split second it takes a signal to turn from amber to red, although we weren't to know he'd be smashing her skull around the dining room just hours after we departed.
But we had our trains to catch and to rush on to the next memory. On holiday we took the North Yorkshire Moors Railway to Pickering and the briars and the blackberries waved at us in the lee of the hills. So we drank tea as the afternoon shadows lengthened on the grassy banks of the castle. Of course, perfect days are a moment in time and a trick of the light. Later I saw films in which hulking great black stream trains rushed out of the snow like angry giants, garish great red stars on their tanks, to take the citizens of Moscow away to the Gulags and to starvation. And those trains in Germany and Poland that packed the people into trucks like cattle and locked the doors on their final trip to the ironbound place with the tower where the furnaces churned away through the night.
But back in those days I was shielded from the mean reality of the human spirit. Night trains were cozy places and the clickey click narrative of the sleepers lulled me to sleep and the promise of a fresh new morning under the wonderful crags and steeples of Edinburgh that seemed to soar into the weak and hopeful air.
So perhaps it was natural when we took the kids for a ride on the Kent and East Sussex Railway that we should seek to recreate a half remembered world of steam. It was easy enough in the recreated station buffet. Life usually feels better when you are eating. And the steam train bound to Bodiam Castle arrived on time.
But after less than 10 minutes of gentle pastoral fields, hedgerows and sheep it started to come apart at the seams. Jack Jax proved to be an uncontrollable ball of energy climbing over the table, and falling off and kicking and screaming. The only solution was Captain Chardonnay and Mr. Merlot and then some more. By the time we got to Bodiam Castle we were buzzing and barely able to make a straight line across the pretty downland to this picture postcard moated fortress that we found hard to bring into focus.
Remarkably we made it back to the return train but the Jackson nightmare resumed. By now the weather had turned cold, the fields had turned dull gray and the journey became a curse rather than a blessing. And a funny thing happened on this toytown line; suddenly a woman started screaing "help" and a man went rushing down the train. It seems an unhinged passenger had kicked the female steward in the leg just a few minutes outside Great Snoring Bottom, or somewhere to that effect.
It reminded me of the loss of my railway dreams many year earlier. Quite frankly it was like turning a page of one of the Rev. W Awdry's books to see the Fat Controller having a pee on Thomas the Tank Engine.